Chao! I have been in Croatia for almost a month now (I arrived on August 31st), which is absolutely surreal to think about. It’s so strange how the months of preparation preceding my arrival felt like they would never end, and now that I’m actually here the speed of time has doubled. It feels as though I’ve been here for three times as long as I’ve actually have; so much has happened!
Where am I?
I am in the city Pula, which is a city on the northern coast of Croatia in the region called Istria. It is only three hours away from Venice by ferry boat (across the Adriatic Sea). Since it is so close in proximity to Italy, there are lots of Italian influences. For example, my host family speaks fluent Italian in addtion to Croatian; there are ruins and historical structures throughout the city from when it was under Roman rule, such as the huge, beautiful ampitheater downtown; and a lot of the food in this area is similar to Italian food, so lots of bread, pasta, pizza, fish, olives, olive oil, tomatoes, and cheese. Since I’m a vegetarian, I haven’t had any of the seafood, but I hear it’s really good and always fresh. What I’ve noticed is that life here revolves a lot around food and family. Often people will discuss what they will be preparing for the day’s meals, and people like to eat as a whole family. And people eat so much here! I was not expecting that. Whenever I don’t want to eat anymore, my host parents will always try to get me to eat more because they don’t think I’ve had enough. This is all very different from my home in Florida because my family doesn’t eat together all that often, and what or when we’re going to eat in the future is never something we think or talk about. I also am not used to having to eat multiple full meals a day; usually at home I eat maybe one big meal and snacks throughout the day. But regardless, the food here is delicious and fresh. My host mom loves to go to the market downtown to get all fresh fruits. She also loves the beach! My house here is only a five minute drive from her favorite beach. Especially in the first week I was here, she and I would go to the beach every day for hours. The ocean here is lovely; I actually haven’t gone swimming yet, but the water is so blue, clear, and still. And the sunsets are breathtaking! The ocean isn’t the only beautiful thing about Pula; the city itself is so lovely. The roads are fairly small (which is typical for European towns) but it’s really charming. Also, there is maybe five stoplights in the entire city; everywhere else there are just roundabouts.
People and Language
About the people... most people here are very welcoming and friendly! Everybody greets eachother with a kiss on each cheek or a hug. When I go downtown with my host mom, she stops maybe twenty times in one outing because of all the people she sees that she knows. People love to talk, and talk loudly. It can be frustrating since I can understand literally nothing from the conversations I hear, but I find it interesting to listen to the language. Everything flows together so beautifully, and it makes me want to learn the language so much more so that I can actually have conversations in Croatian! The language has been the main struggle for me since I’ve arrived. Almost everybody speaks good English (people in older generations tend to only know a couple phrases), including my host family and all of my classmates at school, so it is very difficult for me to practice. I’ve pretty much resorted to saying only very basic and occasional things in Croatian and speaking English for nearly everything, which is disappointing. I am definitely going to start studying more phrases so that I can start to incorporate them more into my daily conversations and eventually start speaking Croatian more. Honestly, I didn’t have the best foundation for language when I got here. I had tutoring for a couple months which was amazing because I got a feel for the language, learned quite a bit of vocabulary, and started to understand the (very) complicated grammar. But unfortunately I forgot some vocabulary and didn’t learn enough phrases that I can actually use. On top of that, I am a more introverted person and I find it very intimidating to even say simple things in the language. I am definitely working on becoming more confident in saying things in Croatian, but I also need to devote more time to actually studying and learning new things. It’s a work in progress, for sure. The best advice I can give to future outbounds is to study the language as much as you can. But also don’t beat yourself up too much if you’re having trouble with it. The main lesson I’ve had to learn is to stop dwelling on what you could have done or studied or prepared in the past, and start setting a new precedent for yourself. If you’re having trouble studying your language, just devote small amounts of time each day to learning a few new phrases or vocabulary, and realize that short daily studying over time is worth more than occasional cram studying. I know that I really did a disservice to myself while getting ready to go abroad by being so intimidated by studying the language that I just never did it. Also! It will really, really help if instead of just doing flashcards or memorization for studying, you actually try to incorporate some of the language into your daily conversations. I didn’t do this, but I think it would have been very beneficial for me. So when you’re talking to your parents, siblings, friends, etc., talk in English, but then afterwards say the same thing but in your host language. It will help you get used to actually saying the words out loud and also help you know which phrases you will be using most often and what you should try to learn the best.
School has been an interesting experience for me. I started on September 9th, which is almost a month after I start school in Florida. I take 15 classes, which sounds absurd, but is not as bad as one might think since students here hardly ever get homework. The classes I currently take are: English, French, Croatian, Latin, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Math, Informatics, Geography, History, Ethics, Art History, Music History, and PE. I actually do participate in many of my classes, but in several of them all I do is sit there or copy the notes even though I don’t understand them. Really how much I participate depends on the teacher; for example my Chemistry teacher was upfront with me from the first day I had her class and told me that I would do nothing in her class. My Physics teacher, however, explains everything to me in English and even prints out some worksheets in English so I can follow along. And during a double English class we had, my professor had me give a presentation about my life-- it lasted the entire two blocks, so almost an hour and a half, since the teacher kept asking me questions and telling me to elaborate. Something that is also different about school here is that during lunch break and during your free blocks if you have any, you can just walk around the city center and get food outside of school. My school is right in the center of the city, which is very convenient for getting a quick snack or hanging out after school with friends. Speaking of friends, it is so important to put yourself out there and make an effort to make local friends! Being outgoing, especially in new situations, is something I have always struggled with, so I am very grateful that many of the kids in my class are very welcoming. But I have still made a concious effort to be more open to making friends, even though it can be difficult at times. I feel like even being here for the short while I have has made me a more adaptable and outgoing person. It’s not like I have turned into a completely different person, but I’ve learned how to be more comfortable in social situations. I’ve already seen several different people outside of school, and I hope that I will continue to build friendships here and hang out with friends. I know that although it can be awkward in the beginning to connect with people, it will be so rewarding after time has passed to have friends and people here that I can depend on and enjoy being with.
Unfortunately, none of the classes I take here in Croatia or grades I receieve will count for credit back in Florida, so I’m going to have to take several classes online when I get back. If you are going on exchange, you will definitely want to talk to your school counselor at home so that you can sort out your credits and everything. I know that sounds like a given, but it took so long to finalize how my credits will play out. In fact, I first started talking with my school counselor in early December, so right around the time I found out I was coming to Croatia. I am so, so glad that I did because she was able to get me enrolled in a 10th grade Florida Virtual School class that I completed and recieved a credit for. This means I don’t have to worry about making up that particular class now, so it is one less class I will have to take online my junior year.
What I’ve been doing!
So much has happened in the last month, I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to write down. I’ve traveled to many parts of Croatia already (both with my host family and with the other inbounds in Croatia), gone to Venice (!!); taken the wrong bus home and momentarily gotten lost in the ciy; joined a rowing team here; gone to a climate march with lots of people from my school; made many friends; eaten lots of pasta and bread; gone for walks by the beach at sunset; and more. My host family has been so kind to take me to lots of different places. There are many seaside towns all around Pula, so we are a short drive from the sweetest cities, such as Rovinj and Fažana. I have also visited Rijeka (meaning ‘River’ in Croatian), since my host sister goes to medical school there. During inbound orientation, I got to go to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. Zagreb, having a population of almost one million, is also the largest city in Croatia. I loved all of the beautiful buildings and parks throughout Zagreb; because of its location, it has lots of Austro-Hungarian architechture. This is the same with Varaždin, a beautiful city near Zagreb that I also visited during inbound orientation. The other exchange students and I also went to Plitvička jezera (Plitvice Lakes), the most renowned national park. It is absolutely gorgeous! I am lucky enough to have been able to visit Venice, Italy with my host family earlier this month. Since we traveled there by boat, we got to see the gorgeous buildings and bridges lining the Grand Canal as we were arriving.
As much as I’ve done and seen while being here, I’ve also spent a lot of time relaxing and just enjoying being here. It is still just ordinary life many days, even though I am still always in awe with everything, from the beautiful buildings to the stray cats everywhere. I love to take the bus home because it is always nice to look out the window at the city passing by, just reflecting and thinking quietly. The amazing thing about exchange is that you have the opportunity to come to a completely different place, thousands of miles away from everything and everyone you know, and start a new life. Nobody has any preconceptions about you, and everything is undeniably different. While such a drastic change can be difficult and scary, it also puts you and your life in perspective. It gives you this power to be independent and make your own happiness . It shows you the infinite possibilities in life. So while life may be ‘mundane,’ it really doesn’t feel that way because you have a newfound appreciation for the littlest things.
First off, I just want to say that everybody on exchange truly has a different experience. For me, the first week was definitely the hardest. Walking through the airports and getting on my flights felt like an out of body experience, like I was this different person and everything was changing. And while I was extremely nervous, I was also so, so excited. Then I arrived in Pula and I was absolutely exhausted. But since it was still very early in the day, I spent the whole day going around the city with my host parents seeing things and talking with them. Since I was so busy that first day, when I finally got the chance to go to bed, I had been awake for almost 30 hours and I hadn’t processed being in another country alone. Once it hit me, I was extremely homesick. While I still managed to engage with my host family, in the back of my mind I was always sad. At one point I was even panicky and questioning why I was there at all. And while I know Rotary advises you to not contact home for the first month, I relied heavily on texting and sometimes calling my mom during the first week; it actually made me feel less homesick to be able to talk to her. But I found as time went on, I naturally started to acclimate to living in Croatia, and I just stopped texting my family. It wasn’t a concious choice to just drop all communication with home, I just stopped feeling the need to talk to them. I still occasionally text them to say hello and so forth, but at this point I feel so much more comfortable with living here that it feels like home, and I don’t have to rely on a connection with Florida. So, what I would say is that you need to give it time and try to wait out the homesickness. And stay strong! It feels awful and never ending, but the more you dwell on it the more it will hurt. What really helped me was writing in my journal, thinking through it by myself, and also engaging more in my life in Croatia. The more your host country feels like a home, the less you will miss your first home.
Okay! So there is a lot more I could probably write about, but I think this journal has gone on long enough. If you are thinking about applying, go for it! It will be an experience that you will never forget and one that will give you back more than you could ever imagine. If you are starting the application process, I would say do not get discouraged by all the essays, interviews, etc.! While it seems like it is taking forever and a day, you will be on a flight to your country before you know it. And if you are in your host country right now, maybe struggling with homesickness or making friends or language, remember that you are never alone. There are countless people behind you, cheering you on. Never feel weighed down by the expectations of others, because if you are giving it your all, that is all that really matters. Get the most out of this year, but also remember to slow down and appreciate it while it lasts. :)
Thanks for reading my journal! I hope you enjoyed and got something from it. Come back in another month or so for another update! :) Chao!
Click HERE to read more about Aleida and all her blogs